Meat processing industry experts talk about labor shortages, unionization among COVID-19

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Workers cut pieces of meat Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, at Sailer's Food Market and Meat Processing in Elmwood, Wis.

Some members of the meat industry are pushing to recruit youth and increase unionization to fix labor shortages and health and safety considerations during COVID-19.

Industry professionals joined Wisconsin Farmers Union's Lauren Langworthy March 11 to talk about these issues during a webinar focusing on labor struggles.

Jake Sailer, owner of Sailer's Food Market in Elmwood, Wis., says working in meat processing is something that you can do the rest of your life while earning a high wage. He said the main skills of the industry, especially using knives to trim and cut different types of meat, are easily learned with little experience necessary. Sailer heavily emphasized the need to teach children about alternative career paths, especially meat processing. 

"We need to get this into these kids' heads in high school. I want them thinking about where they want to go to school, what they want to do. We need these trade jobs back," Sailer said. "You can work your way up the line here too. You can come in, you can start as a trimmer, you can start off washing carcasses. Then you get the knife skills into their hands and they can start breaking animals and then they can start skinning. The sky's the limit working for us."

COVID-19 has hit his business hard, Sailer said. He remembered that last September, his business temporarily lost 13 employees – out of the total 36 – because of quarantining measures taken after close contact with someone who tested positive. While the business eventually recovered with everyone back to work, he had to implement Saturday and overtime hours to try keeping up with the 30-month backlog of orders.

Jake Sailer

After that scare, Sailer also decided to implement a new health and safety training course, especially because he's planning on expanding the shop further which will bring in even more employees. He added he's including paid time off and is pursuing a company health plan as a way to increase retention rates and get people through the door.

"Health care is our biggest problem. ... I would say within the next six months we will have full benefits," Sailer said. "My vision right now is that we need to get these people ... the health care that they can actually provide for their wife or their kids."

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Overall, meat processing plants and shops, big or small, have been hit hard by COVID-19. These businesses have many people working in close quarters for long hours in often dangerous conditions even without a pandemic. So when a contagious disease began raging, it was not long before over 16,000 workers became infected by May 2020 in the US. One study suggests the meat processing industry was responsible for 6-8% of all COVID-19 infections in the US through July 2020.

Jim Ridderbush, who's been a labor liaison at the Green Bay JBS meatpacking plant for eight years, says unions help mitigate much of that risk to workers. He said understanding your rights to health and safety under a union contract is more important than ever since the employees at his plant now speak a combined eight languages.

"These are skilled jobs – I know lots of people don't really think of it that way, but doing this work you have to know what you're doing. You're working with a knife. You're working in close quarters. If you're operating heavy machinery, you're operating inside of very tight corners where there's a lot of people in extreme conditions," Ridderbush said. "It's very important to have a union there to protect the workers, to be able to bring our expertise from across the country."

Jim Ridderbush

Local 1470 UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers), the union that represents Ridderbush and others at JBS, has a safety council that conducts regular PPE checks, safety training, inspections and more. He said the union helps spur "corrective action" from plant management. Even so, the plant was not prepared for COVID-19 when it hit.

Ridderbush was sick with COVID-19 around the time the first cases at JBS were announced. He said at the time masks were impossible to find because they were in such high demand, making it easy to spread the disease.

The Green Bay plant went from 2,000 heads to 100 heads a day, Ridderbush said, and ended up temporarily shutting down in April because it was losing money to keep the line going with so little product and few hands on deck. They reopened in early May in staggered phases with reduced staff.

"All it takes is one person comes in with it. When you're dealing with refrigeration, you're breathing, you're working hard. You're working ... elbow to elbow and the refrigeration (is) stirring the air around, and it doesn't take much," Ridderbush said. "And at that time we had no masks."

Jake Bailey became a union representative at UFCW in 2011 after working for Seneca Foods for nearly a decade. He's now president-elect of Local 1473 UFCW, where he represents over a thousand food processing and meatpacking workers. He remarked that he's seen a vast growth of diversity in the meat workforce, going from mostly white men to an even men-to-women ratio that represents many races, ethnicities and languages.

"We have Burmese workers, South African, Hispanic workers, Hmong workers. Just about every year it seems to shift and we have an influx from a different area of workers that's coming in here," Bailey said. "Communication has changed in these plants. Safety has changed (and) relationships with USDA inspectors and with other inspectors that come in these plants have changed as they get bigger. You just don't have that same personal relationship that we used to have years ago."

Jake Bailey

He said he's also seen the meat industry become consolidated as big players "eat up" smaller ones, also leading to consolidation in available jobs. Four meat processing companies – Tyson, National Beef, JBS and Cargill – control 80% of the beef market.

While Bailey said the wages and working conditions in meat plants aren't necessarily bad, they could be much better. He said he's found huge differences between union and non-union plants, including a better ability to monitor line speeds and cover shifts when someone calls in sick.

Bailey said that when COVID-19 became a big problem for meat processors, some big facilities had to completely start over to figure out how to go forward without endangering workers. Today, the kinks have been ironed out, but miscoordination in the early days led to many workers becoming ill, some dying.

"You have to constantly sanitize, you have to scrub the workers out, you have to slow the lines down so the workers can stay up. Unfortunately we saw people get sick. We saw people pass away from this," Bailey said. "We represent ... the plants you heard about in the evening news over the last year.  We had to basically start from scratch on how to even run some of these facilities."